Set in the heyday of Music Hall, On the Halls takes you back in time to remember Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley, two of the music halls’ most successful female performers. Between the 1880s and 1920s, the pair endured a bitter competition to determine who really dominated the British Music Hall.
In KATAPULT’s production, this competitive relationship takes form in jovial digs, and jesting insults. The exchanges between Lloyd (Marie Kelly) and Tilley (Ann Lindsey Wickens) perfectly capture the essence of two tough, vivacious women. We are introduced to the pair when Tilley joins Lloyd backstage to tell her that, after many yeas of stiff competition, Tilley will be retiring, and the pair commence a childish exchange of insults to determine who is the most experienced. This opening scene establishes a playful tone, of slapstick comedy and comic irony (the best when Marie Lloyd insists she born into the job when she “started singing temperance songs when I was 8”, whilst taking a sip of wine), which sets a fun tone to the rest of the performance.
From then on, KATAPULT’s production takes us further back in time to trace the events that have caused Tilley’s retirement. This job is left to the show’s Chairman (Brian Withstandley), who acts as storyteller, introducing the women’s songs and fast-forwarding and rewinding time. Scenes of the women’s personal lives are interspersed with scenes of them performing their music hall numbers, creating an intimacy which familiarises the audience with both sides of the performers’ characters. The songs they perform, most notably ‘Oh Mr Porter’ and ‘She Was Poor But She Was Honest’, encourage the audience to singalong. Although I faltered slightly by not knowing the words (I was the youngest in the audience by a good 20 years), what initially made me cringe, soon became a comforting, warming insight to a theatre world rarely seen nowadays.
A simple design creates multiple settings; from the music halls themselves to riots in the famous 1907 strike, and finally the introduction of the Jazz Age. This is greatly helped along by excellent costumes and the onstage pianist (Laurence Payne). This simplicity allows director Michael Thomas to focus on the women’s lives and personal development; however, I could not help but feel that the production works best when it embraces being light and cheerful. The more dramatic aspects of the women’s stories, in particular Marie Lloyd suffering in abusive relationships, lost their poignancy when juxtaposed between the playful singsongs.
Nonetheless, this production offers a nostalgic insight into a long-lost world, and is upheld spectacularly by a cast and creative team who really know their music hall. In particular, Kelly’s Marie Lloyd brings a vibrancy and energy to the stage that absorbs the audience into her performance – rather frustratingly, I still can’t get her rendition of ‘When I take My Morning Promenade’ out of my head!
On the Halls played at Tristan Bates Theatre. For more information, see the Tristan Bates Theatre website.